“Best of…” 2005-b

From: M.P.

Subject: Arles to the Pirinees

Date: Jun 2005

Just came back from France, where I walked from Arles to the Pirinees, on the southernmost ancient pilgrim’s route to Santiago de Compostella (Spain).  25 days and over 600 km.  Like usual, I took the bare minimum with me – slim sleeping bag & inflatable matress, 1 pair of old blue jeans, 1 pair of shorts, 3 pairs of jocks and polos, one sweater, small towel, plastic rain poncho, basic first aid pouch and some things for shaving and washing etc.  Naturally, no shoes, or anything else I could put on my feet besides the ankle bracelets.

I got on the connecting trains and busses barefoot without any comments.  I have always found France to be a very barefoot friendly country, except maybe in some museum, and I had absolutely no negative remark or experience anywhere.  I did get a lot of positive comments though, especially from people who had walked the same trail, and barely believed the rocky hill climbs and endless gravel and asphalt roads could be done barefoot.  (I must say I briefly had my doubts too, when I had to descend through a chestnut forest which was literally a wall to wall carpet of sharply spiked little balls, and I had to pick out a handful of the blasted things from each foot every third pace.)

There were few other people on the trail, and most days I walked without encountering a soul.  The scenery was superb, and the welcome at the various pilgrim’s shelters along the way was invariably warm.  I was lucky with the weather too: mostly not too warm and often cloudy.  Only had a little rain – I love to feel the mud ooze between the toes and rinsing it off in the next puddle.  The clay surfaces were so sticky when wet I had to scrape it off once in a while so as not to feel like I was wearing heavy boots.  The same surface was hard as concrete when dry though, which made the fossilized tractor tracks quite difficult to walk on.  As asphalt surfaces tend to wear down my soles very quickly, I became quite adept at walking the road shoulders, even in knee high grass, preferring the nestles and other prickly plants to the grating pavement.

Most walkers boasted very brown legs and very white feet at the end of the day, but since I preferred to keep my jeans on, I had exactly the opposite: very brown feet and very white legs.  The soles of my feet didn’t become much harder as I had expected, they are probably not much thicker than before I left.  It seems I wasn’t the only barefooter though, as they told me I’d just missed a Frenchman walking barefoot the other way, headed for Rome and Jerusalem (!).  Unfortunatelly, I could find out nothing more about him.

Oddly, I found it far more difficult to find lodgings in bigger cities than in small towns.  In Castres, it took me hours to finally find what turned out to be the last available room in town – in a three star hotel.  My grubby feet and by now tatty jeans seemed to make absolutely no difference to the staff.  I asked if I could have dinner there, pointing out I didn’t have much else to put on, and the receptionist just smiled and said it was no problem at all, so I had a great time at the sumptuous buffet.

Once, when I arrived in a small town, with only 12 Euro in my pocket, and no cash dispenser in sight, the secretary at town hall (in charge of recieving pilgrims) asked if I had reserved a place to sleep.  I told her jokingly that real pilgrims don’t make reservations, at which she became all nervous.

What are we supposed to do with a real pilgrim, she fretted, all the beds were taken.  She took to the phone and started to call the local bed and breakfast joints.  She actually haggled the price of the room down for me from 35 to 15 Euro, including breakfast.  When I showed her I only had 12, she said since the beds at the pilgrim’s refuge were 10,50, she would give me the difference, which she did.  Turns out the guy with the bed and breakfast only accepted me because she’d told him I had no shoes and he wanted to meet me.  He even invited me to join him for dinner, as I was the only guest.

Curiously, I had one negative encounter on my way home.  As passed the security check in Atocha train station in Madrid for my last connecting train, I had to think of our friend Machi’s experience with an obnoxious security guard there after he’d completed his walk to Santiago last year.

Sure enough, as I was waiting for the train, a guy in uniform comes up to me and tells me I have to put my shoes on.  I tell him that will be a bit difficult, as I don’t have any.  To lay it on thick, I add that in any case, as I have just walked the Camino de Santiago, I can’t break my promise (not to wear shoes) until I’m back home.  He tells me I’ll have to walk home then, for they won’t let me on the train.  I tell him I doubt that, for I’ve taken the train like this before.  He tells me to wait there, for he’ll come back to me on that.  As the train started to board a little later though, I simply passed the ticket control and boarded the elegant high speed train without anything but a friendly greeting from the hostess.

Greetings from a very sunny and warm Cordoba (Spain),